In the largest refugee operation in U.S. history, nursing homes were among the last facilities to be evacuated from New Orleans, following hospitals and the downtown Superdome and convention center. An untold number of nursing home residents may have been left behind in the desolated city.
At St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, 32 of 80 frail residents perished before rescuers could get to them, said Joseph Donchess, executive director of the Louisiana Nursing Home Association.
Evacuating nursing homes may be the most challenging aspect of public health. In Orleans Parish alone, 3,000 people lived in 24 nursing homes, according to the National Citizens' Coalition for Nursing Home Reform.
Viewers of NBC's "Meet the Press" heard one typically heartbreaking story. Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish (a Louisiana county adjacent to New Orleans), broke down in tears in recouning the ordeal of the elderly mother of one parish employee who was trapped in a nursing home awaiting rescuers who never came.
"Every day she called him and said, `Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?'" Mr. Broussard said.
"And he said, `Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday.' And she drowned Friday night.
"It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here," Broussard asserted. "Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area."
After evacuations finally began, many nursing home residents were transported to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which was transformed into a holding pen for the elderly and infirm. Dozens of people from nursing homes and hospitals lay dying on stretchers on the floor.
"Their organs are shutting down. They are septic. They are storm victims," said chaplain Mark Reeves of the federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team. "We've already had 25 die here."
Meanwhile, it is becoming grimly evident that some nursing home residents -- no one seems to know how many -- were left behind in the city. "[T}here were worrying hints that the forgotten nursing homes of New Orleans might ultimately be found to be worse charnel houses than the stranded hospitals," reports the New York Times.
"A Web site set up by The Times-Picayune newspaper in New Orleans at www.nola.com to encourage people to tell their stories." reports the Times, "had numerous detailed pleas from family members of elderly New Orleans residents saying they believed their relatives were trapped in nursing homes or apartment buildings, unable to make contact because they were bedridden or too senile to ask fleeing neighbors for help."
[UPDATE: FEMA has announced that 30 nursing homes in the New Orleans area have been vacated and 9,400 people rescued from hospitals and skilled nursing facilities, according to Senior Journal. FEMA is bringing in at least two Carnival Cruise ships to Galveston, Texas, to house senior citizens, 65 and older, said FEMA spokesperson Ed Conley.]
The Louisiana Nursing Home Association has set up a Web page where loved ones can search for a nursing home resident. Go to: http://www.lnha.org/katrina/default.asp
For a New York Times article on the tragedy at the St. Rita's nursing home, click here. (Free registration required and article is available free of charge for only one week from publication date, 9/7/05.)